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Unified messaging: It's not just about cost savings

The SMB market for telephone products is expected to double by 2010. While the cost savings are there, better overall functionality is proving to be even more beneficial.

Not too long ago, small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) were chucking their traditional telephony solutions for Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) systems because of the potential for cost savings. Today, however, the advent of unified messaging has brought voice and data together, resulting in better overall functionality.

"Cost no longer is the driving factor," said Carmi Levy, senior research analyst at London, Ontario-based Info-Tech Research Group Inc., "it's enabling the business, with a wider range of functions that are not possible with traditional voice infrastructure." The rise of VoIP systems in the SMB space has created a boom in the telephony marketplace, Levy notes. Telephony shipments to SMBs will increase by more than one-third this year, coupled with a 17 percent decrease in traditional telephony. The total SMB market for telephone products was $1.4 billion in 2005, a figure that's expected to increase to $3 billion by 2010.

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The Raleigh, N.C.-based civil trial law firm of Patterson, Dilthey, Clay, Bryson & Anderson LLP went with a hosted VoIP solution more than two years ago to provide the two-office firm more flexibility and outside support, said Danny Burk, IT director. The firm's 100 employees, including 40 lawyers, work from offices in Raleigh and Wilmington, N.C. After adopting VoIP for the Raleigh office, the firm switched Wilmington to VoIP about a year ago. "One receptionist answers calls for both offices," said Burk, adding that the hosted VoIP solution from Apex, N.C.-based FeatureTel LLC costs about the same as the private branch exchange system the firm was using. "It ties the two offices together much more."

In addition to eliminating worries about the phone system, the VoIP's unified messaging feature allows for higher levels of customer service from attorneys to clients as well as better communication between support staff and attorneys. Calls follow attorneys, and their BlackBerrys notify them when there's a voicemail waiting.

"There's no comparison on functionality between the two systems," Burk said. "We're gaining efficiency, and that equates to the bottom line."

Since a VoIP solution brings voice and data in one line, there is a chance to combine IT and telephone staff members into a single department, Levy said. But any solution must take data infrastructure needs into account because of the volume of data flowing through the lines. If the system gets overloaded, call degradation will occur, reducing productivity and possibly alienating customers.

"This is absolutely critical in the SMB space," Levy said. "When I call a company, I don't care how many employees you have. I expect a high level of service. VoIP with unified messaging allows smaller companies to look and feel like bigger companies."

The ability to easily move, add and change phone service even in remote locations was one of the deciding factors behind the VoIP solution purchased by Shea Homes LLC. The company is based in Walnut, Calif., but 178 employees work in the Charlotte and Raleigh, N.C., markets. "Moves, adds and changes were getting tedious," said Steve Rilee, IT manager. "With VoIP, we're able to extend the network to construction trailers and sales offices." Phone location changes that Rilee formerly paid a vendor to do can now be accomplished in as little as five minutes.

Shea Homes purchased a Mitel VoIP system from Atcom Business Telecom Solutions, based in Durham, N.C. Monthly maintenance is a little more than the PBX solution, but the system is one-third larger than the previous one. The company also is piloting unified messaging with a handful of managers and customer care staffers, who can store messages, warranty information and contract information in one Outlook folder.

"My advice is if a company is looking to upgrade their phone system, VoIP is the way to go," Rilee said.

But Levy cautions that any phone system change requires a year or more of planning to ensure success. Implementation costs should extend beyond the VoIP solution to make sure the data infrastructure can handle the increased bandwidth. Beefing up the infrastructure can add from 10 percent to more than 100 percent of the cost of the VoIP system, so those monies also must be budgeted.

"The solution will fail if the [data] pipes aren't large enough to handle the traffic," Levy said. "A five-second delay on the data side would be no problem, but even a tenth-of-a-second lag in voice will affect the quality of the call, and anything less than 100 percent quality won't be tolerated by anyone."

Matt Bolch is a contributing writer based in Atlanta. You can read more about him at

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